How gross is gross?

One of the unintended consequences of the New Hollywood cinema of the late-1960s and 1970s was the domination of the industry by the opening weekend gross. Once studio executives saw how much could be taken in a single weekend by releasing films across a large number of screens the opening weekend defined the attitude of the studios to their product:  a film with a big opening weekend would receive a marketing boost – not least because it would be widely reported that it had a big opening weekend; where as a film that performed poorly over its first three days would die a quiet and unlamented death. (Cynics would at this point note that 3-days seems like a luxury in 21st century Hollywood). The opening weekend gross became an indicator of the likely success of a movie, and has been analysed by economists. For example, Jeffrey S. Simonoff and Ilana R. Sparrow concluded that

the ultimate box office performance of movies can be forecast with some accuracy given easily available information. The predictions are especially accurate after the first weekend of release for movies opening on more than 10 screens, although the tendency for some distributors to slowly widen release of a film based on word of mouth complicates matters. Oscar nominations in the major categories do seem to provide a boost to revenues, as long as the movie has not already been in release for many months when the nominations are announced.

[Simonoff JS and Sparrow IR 2000 Predicting movie grosses: winners and losers, blockbusters and sleepers, Chance 13 (3): 15-24. The article can be accessed here].

That the opening weekend gross should have such a large role in determining the total gross of a film is unsurprising: after all, for most films the opening weekend is the point of widest release and over time the number of screens on which a film plays declines week by week. Occasionally there are sleepers which buck the trend; but overall it is pretty unremarkable that an industry geared towards the opening weekend should find itself dominated by the opening weekend.

This is interesting stuff, but it all relates to Hollywood films in an American context. There is very little by way of similar research on British cinema and so here I plot the relationship between the opening weekend gross (including previews) and the total gross after 8 weeks on release for films defined (in some way) as ‘British’ released in the UK in 2007 and 2008. The data was collected for 50 films from the UK Film Council.

Although 8 weeks does not seem very long, this is roughly about the length of time a film lasts at the UK box office. (It is also often difficult to find good quality data for anything after week 8, especially for non-British films at the UK box office). There are some films that continue to earn substantial amounts of money after 8 weeks (e.g. Mamma Mia!) but this does not happen often. The relevant information is presented in Tables 1 and 2, and is represented in Figure 1. The column P in Tables 1 and 2 is the proportion of week 8 total gross accounted for by the opening weekend. The data is organised into subgroups of low-grossing and high-grossing films that are colour-coded for easier reference.

Figure 1 Opening weekend gross (including previews) and week 8 total gross for ‘British’ films released in the UK, 2007 and 2008

Table 1 Opening weekend gross (including previews) and week 8 total gross for ‘British’ films released in the UK, 2007 and 2008 (Low grossing films)

Table 2 Opening weekend gross (including previews) and week 8 total gross for ‘British’ films released in the UK, 2007 and 2008 (High grossing films)

There is clearly a strong linear trend in the relationship between the opening weekend gross and the total gross after 8 weeks, and Spearman’s r (48) = 0.9763, p = <0.0001. Therefore, we can conclude that the opening weekend gross is a good predictor of the total gross of a film after 8 weeks on release. Like I said, this is not that surprising. It is, however, interesting to look at the grouping of films in Figure 1 to identify how different sections of the exhibition market relate to one another.

The 50 films looked at here can be sorted into four sub-groups. In Table 1, we find the low grossing films that are overwhelming those films that tend to be what people think of as ‘British national cinema’ – they have British subjects, British production companies, British stars, etc. The blue films have low opening weekends (median  = £0.58 million) and low total grosses after week 8 (median = £3.27 million). No film in this group grossed more than £10 million after 8 weeks. There are some films in this group with some Hollywood involvement but this did not have the same effect as the co-mingling of British source material and Hollywood blockbuster style as it does for the Harry Potter movies. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, for example, originated in the UK with Toby Young’s memoir and featured Jeff Bridges and Kirsten Dunst, but performed as badly in the UK as it did everywhere else.

The green films perform better in either or both the opening weekend gross (median = £2.36 million) and total gross (median  = £10.91 million) categories, but necessarily by a large amount. Atonement, for example, has an opening weekend similar to those at the upper-end of the blue films, but grossed much more than these films did in general, and so it performed much more strongly than many other British films after its opening weekend. The same is true of St. Trinian’s. The remainder of the green films are underperforming Hollywood backed films (although Step Up 2 could probably be considered reasonably successful). Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian did not do well at all, and its box office performance is a long way behind the blockbusters in the red and purple groups. This film is a long way behind Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and it is no surprise Disney bailed out of the series and left production to Walden Media.

The red films show another step up in terms of the opening weekend (median = £6.55 million) and week 8 gross (median = £23.43 million); and represent moderately successful blockbusters, but which are nonetheless strictly second tier. The stand out film here is Mamma Mia!, which bucks the trend for this data to take the highest gross from a relatively poor opening weekend. Finally, in the purple films we have the top earners – every film in this small group has an opening weekend over £10 million (median = £13.81 million) and grossed at least £39 million after 8 weeks (median  = £48.07 million).

It is also clear that the proportion of the week 8 total gross accounted for by the opening weekend is lower for low-grossing films (median = 0.2208 [95% CI: 0.1941, 0.2474]) than it is for high grossing films (median = 0.2957 [95% CI: 0.2749, 0.3165]). This may be due to the fact that the higher grossing movies are blockbusters and received much wider releases than small British films such as The Flying Scotsman or Grow Your Own. Of the higher grossing films, only Mamma Mia! stands out as a film with a low value of P and a high gross, and this films was the highest earner at the UK box office until Avatar.

About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on September 2, 2010, in British Cinema, Film Industry, Film Studies, Motion Picture Distribution, Motion Picture Exhibition and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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